Let’s Talk About Elon Musk’s Submarine

When word first broke that Elon Musk was designing a kid-sized submarine to help rescue the children stuck in Thailand’s Tham Luang cave, it seemed like a logical thing for Hackaday to cover. An eccentric builder of rockets and rocket-launched electric sports cars, pushing his engineering teams and not inconsiderable financial resources into action to save children? All of that talk about Elon being a real life Tony Stark was about to turn from meme into reality; if the gambit paid off, the world might have it’s first true superhero.

With human lives in the balance, and success of the rescue attempt far from assured (regardless of Elon’s involvement), we didn’t feel like playing arm-chair engineer at the time. Everyone here at Hackaday is thankful that due to the heroics of the rescuers, including one who paid the ultimate price, all thirteen lives were saved.

Many said it couldn’t be done, others said even saving half of the children would have been a miracle. But Elon’s submarine, designed and built at a breakneck pace and brought to Thailand while some of the children were still awaiting rescue, laid unused. It wasn’t Elon’s advanced technology that made the rescue possible, it was the tenacity of the human spirit.

Now, with the rescue complete and the children well on their way to returning to their families, one is left wondering about Elon’s submarine. Could it have worked?

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What is Our Martian Quarantine Protocol?

If you somehow haven’t read or watched War of the Worlds, here’s a spoiler alert. The Martians are brought down by the common cold. You can argue if alien biology would be susceptible to human pathogens, but if they were, it wouldn’t be surprising if aliens had little defense against our bugs. The worrisome part of that is the reverse. Could an astronaut or a space probe bring back something that would ravage the Earth with some disease? This is not science fiction, it is both a historically serious question and one we’ll face in the near future. If we send people to Mars are they going to come back with something harmful?

A Bit of News: Methane Gas Fluctuations on Mars

What got me thinking about this was the mounting evidence that there could be life on Mars. Not a little green man with a death ray, but perhaps microbe-like life forms. In a recent press release, NASA revealed that they not only found old organic material in rocks, but they also found that methane gas is present on Mars and the amount varies based on the season with more methane occurring in the summer months. There’s some dispute about possible inorganic reasons for this, but it is at least possible that the variation is due to increased biological activity during the summer.

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Hackaday Links: June 3, 2018

All the Radio Shacks are dead. adioS, or something. But wait, what’s this? There are new Radio Shacks opening. Here’s one in Idaho, and here’s another in Claremore, Oklahoma. This isn’t like the ‘Blockbuster Video in Nome, Alaska’ that clings on by virtue of being so remote; Claremore isn’t that far from Tulsa, and the one in Idaho is in a town with a population of 50,000. Are these corporate stores, or are they the (cool) independent Radio Shacks? Are there component drawers? Anyone want to take a field trip and report?

A few years ago, [cnxsoft] bought a Sonoff WiFi switch to control a well pump. Despite this being a way to control the flow of massive amounts of water with an Internet of Things thing, we’re still rocking it antediluvian style, and for the most part this WiFi-connected relay worked well. Until it didn’t. For the past few days, the switch wouldn’t connect to the network, so [cnxsoft] cracked it open to figure out why. There was one burnt component, and more than one electrocuted insect. Apparently, an ant bridged two pins, was shortly electrocuted, and toasted a resistor. It’s a bug, a real bug, in an Internet of Things thing.

eInk is coming to license plates? Apparently. Since an eInk license plate already includes some electronics, it wouldn’t be much to add some tracking hardware for a surveillance state.

Hold up, it’s a press release about crypto hardware. No, not that crypto, the other crypto. Asus has announced a new motherboard that is capable of supporting twenty graphics cards. This isn’t a six-foot-wide motherboard; it’s designed especially for coin mining, and for that, the graphics cards really only need a PCIe x1 connection. The real trick here is not using PCIe headers, and instead piping everything over vertical-mount USB ports. Yes, this is a slight cabling nightmare. So, you still think the early 80s with fluorinert waterfalls and Blinkenlights that played Game of Life was the pinnacle of style in computer hardware? No, this is it right here.

Here’s a book you should readIgnition!: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants by John Drury Clark is a fantastic book about how modern liquid rocket fuel came to be. Want to know why 60s cartoons and spy movies always referenced a ‘secret rocket fuel formula’ when kerosene and liquid oxygen work just fine? This is that. Back when we covered it, the book, used, on Amazon, cost $500. It’s now in print again and priced reasonably. It’s on the Inc. 9 Powerful Books Elon Musk Recommends list, so you know it’s good. Thanks, [Ben] for sending this one in on the tip line.

Predicting Starman’s Return To Earth

There’s a Starman, waiting in the sky. He’d like to come and meet us, but he’ll have to wait several million years until the Yarkovsky effect brings him around to Earth again.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, SpaceX recently launched a car into space. This caused much consternation and hand-wringing, but we got some really cool pictures of side boosters landing simultaneously. The test launch for the Falcon Heavy successfully lobbed a Tesla Roadster into deep space with an orbit extending out into the asteroid belt. During the launch coverage, SpaceX said the car would orbit for Billions of years. This might not be true; a recent analysis of the random walk of cars revealed a significant probability of hitting Earth or Venus over the next Million years.

The analysis of the Tesla Roadster relies on the ephemerides provided by JPL’s Horizons database (2018-017A), and predicts the orbit over several hundred years. In the short term — a thousand years or so — there is little chance of a collision with anything. In 2091, however, the Tesla will find itself approaching Earth, and after that, the predicted orbits change drastically. As an aside, we should totally bring the Tesla back in 2091.

Even though the Tesla Roadster, its payload adapter, and the booster are inert objects floating in space right now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t forces acting on it. For small objects orbiting near the sun, the Yarkovsky effect is a huge influence on the orbit when measured on a timescale of millennia. In short, the Yarkovsky effect is a consequence of a spinning object being heated by the sun. As an object (a Tesla, or an asteroid) rotates, the side facing the sun heats up. As this side faces away from the sun, this heat is radiated out, imparting a tiny, tiny force. This force, over a period of millions of years, can send the Tesla into resonances with other planets, eventually sending it crashing into Earth, Venus, or the Sun.

The authors of this paper find there is a 6% chance the Tesla will collide with Earth and a 2.5% chance it will collide with Venus in the next one Million years. In three Million years, the probability of a collision with Earth is 11%. These are, according to the authors, extremely preliminary calculations and more observations are needed. If the Tesla were to hit the Earth, it’s doubtful whatever species populates the planet would notice; the mass of the Tesla is only 1250 Kg, and Earth flies through meteoroids weighing that much very frequently.

Are There Better Things To Hurl Into Orbit Than A Sports Car?

We’ve been having a lively discussion behind the scenes here at Hackaday, about SpaceX’s forthcoming launch of their first Falcon Heavy rocket. It will be carrying [Elon Musk]’s red Tesla Roadster, and should it be a successful launch, it will place the car in an elliptical orbit round the Sun that will take it to the Martian orbit at its furthest point.

On one hand, it seems possible that [Musk]’s sports car will one day be cited by historians as the exemplar of the excesses of the tech industry in the early 21st century. After all, to spend the millions of dollars required to launch the largest reusable space launch platform ever created, and then use it to hurl an electric vehicle into orbit round the Sun seems to be such a gratuitous waste of resources, an act of such complete folly as to be criminal.

Surely even given that there is a reasonable chance of a first launch ending in fiery destruction it must be worth their while canvassing the universities and research institutions of the world with the offer of a free launch, after all there must be a significant amount of science that would benefit from some cost-free launch capacity! It seems a betrayal of the famous “Why explore space” letter from the associate science director of NASA to a nun who questioned the expenditure while so many in the developing world were starving.


But on the other hand, first launches of rockets are a hazardous endeavour, as the metaphorical blue touchpaper is lit on the world’s largest firework for the first time. Satellites are expensive devices, and it would be a foolhardy owner who entrusted their craft to a launch vehicle with a good chance of a premature splashdown.

Launch of first Arianne 5. Not where you want your pricey satellite.

First launches traditionally carry a ballast rather than a payload, for example NASA have used tanks of water for this purpose in the past. SpaceX has a history of novelty payloads for their test launches; their first Dragon capsule took a wheel of cheese into space and returned it to Earth. We picture Musk looking around a big warehouse and saying, “well, we got a lot of cars!”

There is a fascinating question to be posed by the launch of the car, just what did they have to do to it to ensure that it could be qualified for launch? Satellite manufacture is an extremely exacting branch of engineering, aside from the aspect of ensuring that a payload will work it must both survive the launch intact and not jeopardise it in any way. It’s safe to say that the Roadster will not have to function while in orbit as the roads of California will be far away, but cars are not designed with either the stresses of launch or the transition to zero gravity and the vacuum of space in mind. Will a glass windscreen originally specified for a Lotus Elise on the roads of Norfolk shatter during the process and shower the inside of the craft with glass particles, for example? There must have been an extensive space qualification programme for it to pass, from vibration testing through removal of any hazards such as pressurised gases or corrosive chemicals, if only the folks at SpaceX would share some its details that would make for a fascinating story in itself.

Space Junk

So the Tesla Roadster is a huge publicity stunt on behalf of SpaceX, but it serves a purpose that would otherwise have to have been taken by an unexciting piece of ballast. It will end up as space junk, but in an orbit unlikely to bring it into contact with any other craft. If its space-suited dummy passenger won’t be providing valuable data on the suit’s performance we’d be extremely surprised, and when it is finally retrieved in a few centuries time it will make a fascinating exhibit for the Smithsonian.

Given a huge launch platform and the chance to fill it with a novelty item destined for orbit,the Hackaday team stepped into overdrive with suggestions as to what might be launched were they in charge. They varied from Douglas Adams references such as a heart of gold or a whale and a bowl of petunias should the rocket abort and the payload crash to earth, to a black monolith and a few ossified ape remains to confuse space historians. We briefly evaluated the theory that the Boring Company is in fact a hiding-in-plain-sight construction organisation for a forthcoming Evil Lair beneath the surface of Mars, before concluding that maybe after all the car is a pretty cool thing to use as ballast for a first launch.

It may be reaching towards seven decades since the first space programmes successfully sent rockets beyond the atmosphere with the aim of exploration, but while the general public has become accustomed to them as routine events they remain anything but to the engineers involved. The Falcon Heavy may not have been developed by a government, but it represents every bit as astounding an achievement as any of its predecessors. Flinging an electric vehicle into orbit round the Sun is a colossal act of showmanship and probably a waste of a good car, but it’s also more than that. In hundreds of years time the IoT devices, apps, 3D printers, quadcopters or whatever else we toil over will be long forgotten. But there will be a car orbiting the Sun that remains a memorial to the SpaceX engineers who made its launch possible, assuming it doesn’t blow up before it gets there. What at first seemed frivolous becomes very cool indeed.

Artificial Intelligence at the Top of a Professional Sport

The lights dim and the music swells as an elite competitor in a silk robe passes through a cheering crowd to take the ring. It’s a blueprint familiar to boxing, only this pugilist won’t be throwing punches.

OpenAI created an AI bot that has beaten the best players in the world at this year’s International championship. The International is an esports competition held annually for Dota 2, one of the most competitive multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games.

Each match of the International consists of two 5-player teams competing against each other for 35-45 minutes. In layman’s terms, it is an online version of capture the flag. While the premise may sound simple, it is actually one of the most complicated and detailed competitive games out there. The top teams are required to practice together daily, but this level of play is nothing new to them. To reach a professional level, individual players would practice obscenely late, go to sleep, and then repeat the process. For years. So how long did the AI bot have to prepare for this competition compared to these seasoned pros? A couple of months.

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Hackaday Links: September 24, 2017

This is it. After twelve years we finally have a new Star Trek. Star Trek: Discovery (we’re using ST:DSC as the abbreviation) is airing right about when this post goes up. Next week, you’ll have to pay CBS $6USD a month to get your Star Trek fix, and today might be the last time a new episode of Star Trek is aired on broadcast TV ever. Enjoy it now, and hope the theme song doesn’t have lyrics. Also, hope The Orville is a tenth as good as a Galaxy Quest series could be.

What’s the best way to describe Delta Sigma PLLs? The Cat In The Hat (PDF, page 31). [Dr. Tune] found a Seuss reference in a TI app note. Personally, I’m a fan of hand-drawn cartoons, but we’ll take what we can get.

This weekend the Prusa I3 MK3 was announced. A good printer just got better. Now here’s the video.

The Raspberry Pi is a great media storage device, but it’s absolutely insufficient for audiophile tomfoolery. Here’s a neat Pi DAC/amp/DSP thingy. The VoltaStream turns the Raspberry Pi into a WiFi-connected pair of speakers with low-latency audio in and a TOSLINK connector.

SpaceX! There is serious consideration being given to starting an ‘Elon Musk column’ here on Hackaday. There will be SpaceX updates coming this week from the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide. What will we find out? I don’t know bruh, but I just got back from Burning Man and I realized it was a whole lot like Mars and I was wondering Elon, like, have you ever been to Burning Man because it’s really dusty and a whole lot like Mars and there’s not much water… Please, organizers of the IAC, I implore you: give more idiots microphones. That was hilarious.

How was the World Maker Faire in New York this weekend? In one word, empty. Abnormally so. Maker Faire was not as crowded as last year, and you could actually move around. My agoraphobia didn’t kick in until the afterparties, and lines for the $5 bottles of water were short. Bay Area Faire attendance was down 16% from 2016-2017, and I would bet attendance for the NY Faire would be down a similar amount. Even a 10% decline in attendance would be noteworthy; the weather last year was cold and rainy and this year was beautiful. There are rumors, speculation, and people wondering how long Maker Faire will continue, but except for Intel pulling out of the maker market, no actual information. Millennials are killing the Maker Faire industry?